The Boycott of Israel Is No Miracle Drug

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Pro-Israel marchers facing BDS protesters during a New York parade in June 2014.Credit: AP

Let’s begin by fantasizing. The international community gets fed up with Israel’s conduct and imposes economic and cultural sanctions on the country. Investment dries up, tourism shrinks, research grants are revoked and Israeli athletes are barred from the Olympics. Travel abroad with an Israeli passport requires lining up for a visa and thorough questioning. Israeli politicians and army people can only go abroad under assumed identities or undercover.

Boycott advocates believe that Israel, which is dependent on international support, wouldn’t withstand such pressure. They hope it would be enough to simply threaten such sanctions to get the government to immediately declare a withdrawal from the territories, an evacuation of settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Just a bit more pressure and Jerusalem would be redivided and the army would withdraw from the Jordan Valley. The occupation would be over and the democratic, Jewish state would dwell securely behind its new border – a happy ending followed by the credits.

But Israel’s surrender to the boycott isn’t assured. It's more reasonable to assume that the government would stiffen its position and entrench itself in the territories rather than withdraw, as other countries facing an international embargo did, such as South Africa, North Korea and Cuba.

Such a situation is characterized by economic austerity, restrictions on travel abroad, suppression of the opposition and the need to save spare parts for planes, creating domestic alternatives to imports. The more the pressure, the more Israel would resemble Masada, not Tel Aviv.

Steps that in the past would have been considered taboo, such as massive construction in the settlements, a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount and even the deportation of Palestinians would be carried out with the feeling that there was nothing to lose.

And what if the boycott movement’s leaders relinquished the demand for the partition of the land and Palestinian independence and called for all the country’s residents, including in the West Bank and Gaza, to receive equal rights in one shared state?

It would be easier for them to get Western public opinion to support a basic democratic principle like one person, one vote than the establishment of another Arab dictatorship next to Israel. That single state would bury both the Palestinian national movement and the Zionist vision.

How would liberal, secular Israelis fighting to build a quasi-Western developed country that respects human and civil rights react to such scenarios? Would they wait amid a low standard of living and limited political freedom to see if the boycott made Israel bend, or would they move abroad in search of economic opportunity and personal freedom?

Boycott enthusiasts love to compare Israel to South Africa and describe the collapse of apartheid as a successful model of international pressure. But they forget that apartheid didn’t disappear overnight but after years of increasing repression. Many of the South African Jews who opposed this official racism didn’t wait for the country’s fall but immigrated to Britain, Australia, the United States and Israel.

A similar phenomenon would happen in Israel if sanctions were imposed. Those with money and a foreign passport looking for freedom would get out, leaving behind a poorer, more right-wing, more religious country.

People who view the boycott as a miracle drug “to save Israel from itself” must ask themselves if they’d want to live in a Masada country in the style of right-winger Bezalel Smotrich or in a state of all of its citizens with a Palestinian prime minister like Hamas’ Khaled Meshal, or perhaps Mohammed Dahlan or Marwan Barghouti. They must ask themselves if for the chance of ending the occupation, they’re willing to sacrifice the prospect of a prosperous, liberal, democratic Israel in recognized borders.

To change the situation, the left has to learn from the right and establish a base of domestic support for its positions. People forgoing the political effort on the reasoning that the public is stupid, racist and spellbound by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are giving up on the country in which they’d wish to live.

They’re choosing the illusion that their salvation will come from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. And if the boycott succeeds, most of them won’t remain here to turn off the lights.

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